by Alex Shortsleeve

Learning Management Systems: what they are, and why you might want one

What is an LMS?

Imagine you have hundreds and even thousands of students, employees, or customers located throughout the world — and you are looking to either educate them, train them, or service them. Trying to communicate with all of them can be daunting, let alone managing their knowledge and understanding. This is where today’s technologies give you the power and reach to manage all your stakeholders.

For the past ten years, I have worked with a variety of Learning Management Systems (LMS) as a student, instructor, and as an administrator. These include Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, eCollege, Cornerstone, SumTotal, Epic, and WebCT (now owned by Blackboard).

Learning Management Systems have been around for almost two decades, but have become more prevalent due to the expansion of the Internet and to the growth of for-profit colleges and universities. They are used to house information and create opportunities for individuals to learn.

Originally learning platforms were used to document and deliver online, asynchronous, computer-based training via the web.

Today, these types of platforms have the capability of offering not only those just mentioned but live streaming or synchronous teaching.

In addition, they have the ability to generate analytical reports that can assist organizations in identifying performance indicators.

Are there different types?

Yes. Learning Management Systems are utilized by all types of educational institutions from K12 through Graduate school. They are also used by organizations to train their employees. Although most of these learning platforms can be used within each of these types of organizations, they do tend to cater to one or the other.

Much of this is due to the fact that learning occurs in different ways based on whether you are an educational institution or private business. In addition, educational institutions track user performance by grades — whereas a private business may offer certifications and/or badges that show accomplishments.

Educational institutions are using learning platforms for a variety of reasons. These include the ability to enroll students who are not near the campus, thus increasing admissions. Classes are not limited to the size of the classroom. It also aligns with how many prefer to learn; at their own time and pace as well as utilizing the chunking strategy of delivering learning into manageable parts or modules.

Organizations on the other hand are using the LMS to drive employee training, skill development, and succession planning. In the beginning organizations used the learning platforms for compliance training that may have been required by a government agency as well as an onboarding tool for new hires.

Savvy organizations are now beginning to realize that their learning platforms can be used as a tool for continuous improvement offering training that goes beyond compliance and onboarding.

How much do they cost?

The cost of an LMS can be anywhere between free to several thousands of dollars. The Moodle LMS, for example, is free but requires the ability to configure it. The fact that it is also an open source program allows for easy upgrades and customization. There is still a cost factor to consider — that is the time it takes for a programmer to develop and configure it.

For those that do have a price, the cost can vary greatly depending upon the number of users. Most of these types of LMSs have the option to purchase the system as an Enterprise solution in which there are no recurring costs regardless of the number of users and data is stored on your own servers. In other words, it is a WYSIWYG.

The other option is to purchase it as a SAAS (software as a service) where your data is stored in a cloud or on the vendor’s servers. This option usually includes vendor assistance and automatic upgrades.

The features and benefits of an LMS

This is where your homework occurs, and it is important that you ask all the right questions. Be sure to consider whether it is scalable and can grow with your organization. It is also important to recognize not only how you would use it today, but in the future as well.

Furthermore, there are several different types of learning platforms where you can add plug-ins to enhance its functionalities.

One area to consider closely is the ability for the LMS to analyze data and report on it. You should also consider whether it can communicate with other systems such as an HRIS (Human Resources Information System) or an SIS (Student Information System) since this may be tied directly to the user.

Some LMSs are very robust in what they have to offer — such as built-in quiz makers and course authoring tools that allow you to design your courses that are loaded onto the system. If they don’t have these built-in tools, then you need to consider the ability for the LMS to integrate with other software tools and accept different types of file formats such as SCORM and xAPI. Also, a good LMS should be mobile device friendly.

But what may be the most important aspects to consider are the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience). You want your users to feel comfortable when working with your learning platform. Remember to also consider the different types of users that will be working with the LMS and their respective UI and UX; such as trainers, managers, and administrators.

How do you leverage your LMS?

The reason for this question has to do with the concept of acceptance or buy-in. Acceptance reflects how well your users will respond to working with a new piece of software and buy-in reflects as to the level of support that management gives for purchasing the LMS. Therefore your systems’ reporting capabilities are important since they may help to identify how well your users are responding and whether there are any gaps or deficiencies in their training or education.

To secure buy-in from management you will need to also communicate its ROI (return on investment). The reporting tools can assist you with this and other challenges to the effectiveness of using an LMS.

One of the most overlooked strategies when choosing to implement or purchase an LMS has to do with connecting it to your organizational goals. In fact, this should be one of the first things that you consider. By using this strategy you improve your chances of acceptance or buy-in.

Any pitfalls in using an LMS?

The first potential pitfall that comes to mind is whether you choose the right learning platform for your organization. The time and cost factors that go into developing it as well as learning to use it can be high. Switching from one LMS to another is not as easy as it sounds. Consider how you will utilize your system in the future since this will take into account its ability to add features.

Another concern is its scalability. You want an LMS that can grow with your organization. It needs to be able to add users quickly. Remember that the cost of an LMS is often tied to the number of users, so your costs will rise as the number of users increase.

Probably the most overlooked pitfall is the inability to use the system at its optimum level. This can include how you set up your courses to curating your data. In other words, “Is it easy to find what you are looking for?”

Perhaps your system has a built-in calendar that allows for easy scheduling of live sessions. Some learning platforms allow you to send push notifications to the users to remind them or encourage them to register for specific courses or training.

In addition, some learning platforms can configure the landing pages and search capabilities which can enhance the UX. Perhaps you are not using some of the features that are built in to the system such as discussion forums or reporting capabilities.

By using all the tools that your LMS can give you, you increase the chances of acceptance and buy-in.

Final thoughts

When the time comes to consider purchasing an LMS, remember to ask yourself many of the questions that were posited in this article. A good learning platform vendor should also have the capability for you to demo the LMS as in a sandbox, so you can better understand its abilities and functionalities.

If you choose to go with an open source LMS or develop your own, consider the time factor for developing it. If you choose to go with a vendor, read the fine print and look to see that they have a good support system in place which can include tutorials as well as the ability to keep your data secure.

With the advent of the Internet and the ever-growing field of technology, your ability to reach your workforce or students globally is now a reality. Consider investing in a Learning Management System today and watch your learning and development be but a click away.